I had two full, long, German riding seasons under my belt, and over 35,000kms between two motorcycles. Then, last December, something happened. I stopped riding due to Michigan weather, and in the ensuing three months, bam! I lost that thing that makes motorcycling so much fun, that makes riding the paradise it is, and that shifts the rider’s paradigms so far off the straight and narrow. I lost my lean.
It’s almost comical to think of a rider with that kind of experience to be missing something. At least, I feel it is. I could feel it creeping up on me as time wore on. My balance was changing, and I could feel gravity again. Riders don’t feel gravity like drivers do. We feel downward force, pressure on our feet and butts. Downward, instead of earthward. Downward, instead of sideways. For a rider, sometimes downward is rather sideways. This is lean.
Bernd Spiegel addressed how humans interact with lean in his book “The Upper Half of the Motorcycle”, now (finally) available in English. Humans are simply not engineered to lean. It’s a fact. At about 20°, the human brain goes into some sort of disaster recovery mode and attempts to right itself, dragging the body along. Motorcyclists must fight this recovery attempt until their brain is trained to accept the higher lean angles achievable on the bike. We must teach our brains to decouple the horizon from the downward forces we feel, to allow the horizon to float and shift freely as our bodies fall into lean. For example, the pegs on my F650GS do not touch the ground until I am a good 45° over. That is more than twice the lean angle my brain is programmed for. And it’s a weird and uncomfortable place to be, until my brain is acclimated to it.
Lean is one of the things that fall into the use-it-or-lose category. If you are not leaning over from an early age, or do not continue to lean over, your brain slowly reverts to disaster mode. Mine did. And I knew it was happening, making it all the more noticeable as time and snow dragged on.
So I decided that even with a running bike (well, not quite, but mostly), I would do a BRC before taking the big girl bike out for a spin. Even at parking lot speeds and on the little bikes, I was conscious of lean. Pathetic, I tell you. Completely pathetic. And then when I pushed the F out and took my first corner, oof. What a zoo. My eyes were looking for the horizon to bend, but my brain was going crazy. NO! No! Stop! You are going to fall over! It took everything I had to remind myself that the bike was going to be fine and I was going to be fine. It wasn’t fear – not at all. It was a sense that something was fundamentally wrong and needed to be corrected. That inputs were mixed and unsortable. Expectations were clearly not being met. The basic riding instincts were still there. I knew the bike was capable. I still felt normal and was executing the correct techniques, but my stupid brain was not accepting what my body was telling it. Even at a lousy 15°, I was flaking out due to the mixed signals fighting in my head to be heard. Parking lot practice was not fun, not easy, and not rewarding, something completely new to me. I usually love doing PLPs, pushing the bike down under me and crossing up, goofing off at slow speeds, and so on.
It took me a solid week of riding to get my brain back onto the right track. A few hundred kms, (finally) finding a (sort of) twisty road, and continually forcing myself to relax and let my rote skills do their thing. This forcible overriding of my brain’s natural instincts was not easy, but over the course of the second week, I noticed that I no longer “felt” lean as much. My brain was no longer immediately freaking out. I could corner without feeling like something was wrong. This improvement continued over the course of the further two weeks. Eventually, I was riding a new road and came up to a tight left-hander. It was signed, a sign I ignored. Oops. Not really, because my rote riding skills include lifting my chin and pushing that bar end. I was in and out of the corner and on to the next one before my brain had a chance to process the deepest lean I’d managed since climbing back into my saddle. No pegs were dragged, but a slight, residual feeling that I was over on my side lingered. Nothing like the abject neural frenzy of the first week. The rest of the ride was spent in wonder about how I’d managed to ride for a month without trusting myself and my lean.
1500kms and a lot of cornering later, I finally have my lean back.
I hope that this will not repeat itself next year. I don’t ever want to lose my lean again.